Khaldoun “K” Alghatrif may be considered one lucky guy.
The 32-year-old, who left his native Syria over a dozen years ago, was living in Qatar and working in human resources.
His wife, Rasha, an elementary school teacher, received a green card through the State Department’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program —“but I filled out all the paper work, so she let me come along,” he says. They’ve been in Ellicott City since October 2015.
The couple decided to move after weighing the hit in income they’d take against the potential instability in the Middle East and their baby daughter’s future. They’re also close to Alghatrif’s brother, a Johns Hopkins- and NIH-based physician who is now also his business partner in Syriana Gallery on Ellicott City’s Main Street.
So yes, he may be lucky, but he hasn’t forgotten those he left behind.
The civil war in Syria has been going on for some five years, made even more complex by international involvement. But even as refugees try to escape the chaos and destruction, some craftsmen have decided to stay behind to preserve the nation’s artistic and cultural heritage.
Alghatrif imports their textiles, metalwork, tile, mosaic, mother-of-pearl and other inlaid items and more to support and encourage their efforts. And in his business plan, the gallery is only the first step in showing the beautiful material culture of his native land.
Pending permits, which Alghatrif hopes to have within a couple of months, the gallery will move upstairs and a cafe on the first floor will serve Arab and American coffee, Arab sandwiches and ice cream prepared with a hammer — “so good you will become addicted,” he says. The venue will support the nonprofit side of the company, registered in Washington, D.C., which Alghatrif hopes will further his preservation goals. He wants to develop workshops in Syria, training youthful artisans, encouraging them to remain in their country and establishing markets here for their products, perhaps working through UNESCO or other international organizations.
For instance, before the war, there were 2,000 looms in the country producing beautiful and intricately designed fabrics, according to a Syrian nongovernmental nonprofit trying to support such artisans. Now, Alghatrif says, only five remain.
But before he could make any progress on these dreams of preservation, when he had only been in business three weeks he had to deal with Ellicott City’s disastrous flood and the delays it brought. Syriana didn’t reopen until Oct. 6.
Alghatrif had loved the area from his first visit. The native black granite on which it is built reminded him of the black basalt rock of his hometown, As-Suwayda, in the mountains of Syria.
A decorative wall tile on display in the store shows a view of Damascus surprisingly reminiscent of Main Street.
Alghatrif had been looking for a retail spot when the former Ellicott’s Country Store building became available. Seeking business advice, he contacted Lissa Bounds Hammond, whose parents, Ennalie and Roland Bounds, had owned it for over 50 years.
“I grew up in the store and needed time to grieve after it was sold,” she says. And he understood, explaining: “I know what it’s like to leave a place you’ve been a long time.”
The two became friendly, and for Hammond, it has brought healing and closure.
“This is the time, with all the terrible things going on, to show support and leave the controversies elsewhere,” she says. “Our world is changing quickly and it needs to change in the direction of safety, love and acceptance. I hope this helps this young family to find its way in our little Historic District.”
Some of the items for sale in the Main Street gallery are serendipitous.
After his daughter’s birth, Alghatrif had been hunting for just the right font to write her name on his Facebook and What’s App pages when he happened upon the perfect one pictured on a set of Turkish coffee cups. And each cup carried a message: “She is beautiful,” “I love her,” “Her name is Shaam” — the Arabic name for the city of Damascus and also the name of his daughter, now about a year old.
Just right indeed, considering that calligraphy is an art form important in Muslim culture.
The same coffee set is now available for sale at Alghatrif’s gallery, along with brocade ties and bags that glow in the sun, colorful textiles, shining copperware and inlaid mother-of-pearl gleaming on boxes and other objects.
Columbia couple Marcia and James Halcomb came across Syriana this summer at a farmers’ market where Ellicott City’s flooded retailers marketed their wares. Even in the heat, one of Syriana’s handwoven tablecloths in gold, green and deep red said “Christmas” to them.
“I’m a quilter, andI’m into anything hand-crafted,” says Marcia Halcomb.
It fits the Columbia couple’s Englishpub table and goes well with theirwooden chairs, too. And it’s washable.
Another newbie on Main Street, Donna Sanger of Park Ridge Trading Company, and temporarily of Main Street Rising next door, says she’s been impressed by Alghatrif’s advocacy for Syrian artists and commitment to Ellicott City. “He brings something very beautiful not available elsewhere … and he’s a very nice guy,” she says.
Alghatrif has been waiting out the three months it takes new merchandise arrive, a process that involves to ordering raw materials, arranging production, collecting finished work in warehouses, shipping to Lebanon and finally overseas. He expected holiday gift items like colorful cushions, table runners and wooden models of old cars constructed of coasters and teaspoons.
But it did give him time to come up with new ideas and plans for sales and marketing.
Each idea, he says, leads to another.
On one hand, he’s working to get in touch with Ten Thousand Villages and to connect with potential retailers in other states.
And on the other, “I’m trying to get the craftsmen to adopt to the market here,” he says.
A video on Syriana’s Facebook page shows some history, and he explains that the nation’s crafts are also historical, with stories going back to the ancient Silk Road from eastern Asia.
Alghatrif’s vision is to deliver a message to the American people about the Syrian story — it’s not just about the fighting and terror.
“We want to show the lives and faces of the beautiful peaceful side of Syria and help the country get back on its feet.”